The gap in our ‘social’ web

It is a cluttered tech industry out there. So, when a start-up comes along making claims that it has something that we all need, it’s hard to believe that they won’t just be rehashing the old with a new sexy colour scheme, or some other ultimately superficial offering. Yet there is the awareness amongst many people that we’re only at the beginning of the internet age, presenting the often asked question: ‘what is going to be the next step-change in the social web?’

Whatever does come next, if it’s going to shake up the industry it’ll need to be simple enough for a vast user base to engage, yet substantial enough to make a real difference in how we connect with one another.

At Humanity Online we are trying to answer that question and we’ve spent a long time talking to lots of organisations and people across sectors to understand what’s missing from today’s social web. The biggest problem we found was an immense discord between civil society and governments, including those democratically elected, as well as a lot of inefficiencies including missed chances to collaborate and duplication of efforts. Our mission resolutely squared on the need to create a natural communication and action space that is shared between governance, civil society, NGOs, the private sector and the media. This is an ambitious effort and will require an entirely new paradigm for decision making.

So far we know that a big chunk of this paradigm is flipping received wisdom on its head. The web is valued for its pluralistic nature, the beauty that anyone can write a blog and create a website. Whilst this is good, it also means that it is very difficult – even with Google’s help – to understand exactly what is going on in relation to any issue. So, the first premise we’ve established is that there should be one space per issue, per location, where everyone relevant can work together in the identification of the issue as well as the design and implementation of solutions.

How does this ‘new’ idea compare with those that have come before? Is it really that new? The answer is yes and no. Outlined below are four types of websites that we can cross-compare

[1] Conventional social media such as Google Plus, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, many of which lack advanced collaborative tools and which don’t provide one place per issue to gather

[2] Collaboration platforms like Tracky, Google Drive, SalesForce and various other task or team spaces where social networking, task management and ‘the gathering’ are not combined

[3] Web-platforms seeking to connect humanity to address social issues, like Avaaz, Greenwire, Change.org and Petition.co.uk take advantage of social media and the power of the viral to engage many people in initiatives that are ultimately delivered by a relatively small, passionate team of campaigners. As such, they answer “how can we leverage the web to maximise support and increase pressure on decision makers?” Conversely, Humanity Online asks the question: how do we create a process and an online space that ensures everyone relevant is involved with both understanding and collaboratively addressing an issue?

[4] Newly emerging web-platforms such as Imagination for the People, GLBrain.com and the more established OpenIDEO provide collaborative online spaces to develop initiatives addressing social issues. Their emergence demonstrates the existing market gap in terms of the socially responsible web.

Yet despite all the goodness on the web, and the incredible wealth of collaborative tools that are available, the fundamental structural question remains unaswered. We need to think about social tools in a societal way.

Let’s start with the village, the most basic and elegant form of society. Say there is a problem in the village, a storm is coming. Everyone gathers in the village square to discuss the problem and to figure out how to protect themselves from the storm. They agree that some should go and cut wood to reinforce the roofs, others to go and round up the sheep so none will get lost and others to get to work gathering the laundry. The storm arrives, and everyone is fine. After the storm, they gather again in the town square to sort out any storm damage.

The web today does not work like that at all.

There is no village square, so nobody knows where to gather when the storm is coming.

That’s why despite the fact that people have often compared the world to a global village, this village feels very dysfunctional. People wonder why governments are so slow at dealing with today’s big problems, or why voter apathy is so strong in the digital age when it should be so much easier for voters to engage. Some would like to blame the scheming of the elite, or the stupidity of the people. But the main problem is simpler and more innocent. Those who are trying to solve problems just don’t have a ‘village square’ where they can gather to understand the problems together and plan and deliver effective solutions. Instead, we have a hundred, or even thousands (depending on what issue they are trying to gather around).

The gap in our ‘social’ web

Empathy in the age of ‘Like’

heart net“We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we’re gonna live on the internet!”- Sean Parker, The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin)

It is pretty inarguable that the act of sociality now exists on the web as much as it does in life, but the internet is no longer the realm of the social alone. Business, politics, finance; most of what we do now has at least some basis in the ethereal web. In essence all this can be summarised by saying that there has been a considerable technological innovation in the ways that people communicate.

 This becomes interesting when you also consider the commonly held belief that the early development of communication played an incredibly important role in human evolution. By introducing empathetic interactions, the progression of vast civilisations was made possible – and through people understanding each others’ needs and appreciating the value of exchange, the human race created the ethos behind of a mutually beneficial society. It seems, thus, a logical argument to propose that as methods and levels of communication have advanced, so has the facility for empathy.

The web is just the latest in a long line of advancements in telecommunication, but it’s also the most impactful one in history (by far). The crux of it is that communicating with people has never been easier. There are roughly 2.8 billion people with access to the internet which means that hypothetically more than a third of the world’s population can connect to each other. And the most noteworthy yield of this phenomenon is an insight into the lives of people, that was previously not available.

Social networking, blogging, and video sharing sites do exactly this: they give regular people a channel for mass communication. The role of YouTube during the Arab Spring is just one specific example – throughout this period, the rest of the world was provided with access to videos captured and shared by the very people involved. Of course we’ve always had news from abroad, but thanks to the internet we now get first-hand accounts of what’s happening. There is now an alternative to the abstraction of a news story – that is: direct and personal communication, which inevitably leads to a general ever-deepening capacity for empathic affinity.

If you look beyond all the trolls and spambots one can see that there is increasingly more and more web content that’s genuinely improving the empathic nature of a large portion of the population.

From blogging to smart social networks to civic action spaces, the internet is increasingly becoming a hub of understanding and of community. An obvious result of people understanding and responding to this is the successful establishing of crowd-funding: hundreds of thousands of people financially supporting each other’s projects, out of compassion or a shared vision of innovation. Never before has it been possible to reach out to so many people so easily, and never before have so many reached back.

Two decades after its introduction, the web appears to be slowly moving toward its potential: as a device that breaks down the barriers of geography and culture to allow a global community to thrive. Of course, the tools and spaces for online collaboration are in need of some innovation. But, armed with this newfound benevolence and the technological breakthroughs that will develop over the next decade, who knows what could be achieved in the future?

Empathy in the age of ‘Like’

How the web hasn’t changed as much as you might think

web not changed muchWhen it comes to social activism, particularly in the digital age, a fundamental question has to be: what is enough? Sharing a tweet, changing your profile picture, or signing a petition are key components of a phenomenon known as clicktivism or slacktivism, forms of online activism requiring little more than a single click. It predominantly serves to raise awareness of an issue. While this is obviously important, a main criticism aimed at slacktivism is that it is undertaken at the expense of actually getting stuff done. These fears may be justified given that a recent study demonstrated public displays of support for a charity on social media can mean you’re actually less likely to donate to the cause in the future. Has social media developed in such a way as to encourage association to a cause, rather than an active commitment to it?

 There’s no doubt that slacktivism can be effective in certain instances. E-petitions have been shown to affect political decision making, as the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act(SOPA) demonstrated, and the sheer speed with which it can transform an issue from the unknown into a topic of worldwide discussion and debate is unquestionable; you need look no further than Joseph Kony to see this at work. These techniques however constitute updated versions of age-old tactics: informing the public, amassing support, and applying political pressure. Essentially, they’re confrontational. In the past that was all that was realistically possible on a mass scale. You could hardly fit everybody concerned about an issue into a room, let alone expect a coherent conversation to emerge.

Skip forward a few hundred years and the printing press has been replaced by the web, drastically increasing the immediacy with which information reaches a vastly wider audience. Thus the speed at which mass mobilisation and the confrontation that often comes with it can be achieved has grown exponentially.

Is the ability to mobilise and create a climate ripe for confrontation desirable though? Depending on the system in question, outcomes can vary greatly. In the UK, this has been channelled into the guarantee of a ‘parliamentary debate’, in the case that 100,000 people sign a petition (though there’s no guarantee it will lead to any meaningful changes). In other parts of the world, it’s not so cut and dry. Take the Arab Spring; mass mobilisations have in some situations resulted in contested political change, however in others, sharp divisions have emerged, leaving countries torn apart by violent conflict.

The tools of communication are thus more powerful than ever, changing the political landscape of entire regions in years rather than decades or centuries. In of themselves though, they cannot be relied on to maximise humanity’s capacity for constructive transformations. They fail to fully draw on humanity’s core skill, which is collaboration; the ability to develop and co-implement a shared vision of goals and objectives.

Social media in its current form, connects us to each other on a rather superficial level; we can share just about anything, but we can’t as easily or effectively work together in understanding problems and identifying solutions. There’s no scope for genuine collaboration. There is neither the space that brings everyone together, nor the tools that would empower people to collaborate if they did come together.

Consequently, the web is not particularly empowering in enabling us to provide our own input into solving the problems we care about. For example, take the recent flooding across large parts of the UK. Existing social media allows us to share extreme examples of those being affected by the floods, and for others to empathise. What if it facilitated our ability to understand exactly what the problems were in any given location and to get involved in local initiatives helping people out on the ground? What if it brought together people being affected by issues, service providers, policy writers and community organisations? What if it was easy to go directly from reading the news to being directly involved in helping out?

Whilst we can readily imagine the potential of such a web, it is hard to comprehend just how powerful it can be because existing social media is wired in almost the opposite direction: fragmented spaces rather than spaces that bring us all together.

The debate surrounding slacktivism thus represents one manifestation of a broader debate about how can we most effectively use the immense power of the web to achieve genuine and lasting change. What that debate highlights is that if we become reliant on e-petitions, retweets and shares, and the mass mobilisations and confrontations they produce, the opportunity to collaborate will pass us by. Let’s not let that happen.

How the web hasn’t changed as much as you might think

Killing time

killing timeAh the internet. What started as an alternative communication system for CERN, intended to give scientists the ability to more easily share their findings, has now become many people’s go-to place for killing time. Reddit. TV Tropes. Tumblr. YouTube. All brilliant in their own way, but it’s still a bit of a shame that what started with such noble goals has now devolved into a glorified way for people to send funny cat videos to each other.

It’s safe to say that an awful lot of people go online just to pass the time,* and there’s no denying that the internet is almost without compare if you’re just looking to fill an hour or two. It’s kind of like going for an absent-minded walk – except you’re sitting in a comfy chair and have videos of animals doing stupid things to amuse you – so, better in just about every way.

A big part of the problem is that it’s so easy to get trapped. If you’re browsing Buzzfeed, Cracked, or Wikipedia, by the time you finish one page you’ll have about ten more tabs open, and the cycle continues from there. The average Briton spends an hour a day on social media, presumably not doing an awful lot – chatting with friends, sharing pictures, and so on. Facebook is essentially the online equivalent of having a casual conversation in the pub: you don’t get anything done, but it’s still pretty enjoyable.

People aren’t just killing time by themselves, though: plenty of them are wasting time with others, even working together with them. At time of writing, World of Warcraft has over 7 million subscribers, and as of January 2014, a staggering 27 million people per day – more than the population of Australia – are playing League of Legends, an arena-based battle game where players have to work in a team to capture structures and beat the opposing team.

 What could we do if just a little of that time were spent on something more productive? It’s not that wasting time on the internet isn’t fun, but it would be amazing if a little of that time everyone spends on Facebook every day were put towards making the world a better place. It’s clearly not that people don’t want to work together, otherwise League of Legends, in which you’re likely to get verbally abused or outright kicked out of the game if you don’t work in a team, wouldn’t have the ridiculous number of players that it does. So, the reason for all this time-wasting must either be apathy or the absence of a space that genuinely allows the average person to make a difference.

The huge popularity of petition sites and the upsurge in slacktivism seem to rule out apathy as the cause – and indeed, the existence of Anonymous is quite a clear sign that people are more than willing to band together if they actually feel they can make a difference. People are willing to work together on things that they think are fun and worthwhile, and so our work is cut out for meeting the internet’s potential for collaboration; a huge potential which has yet to be realised.

 *According to the Pew Research Centre, 75% of people do: http://pewinternet.org/Trend-Data-(Adults)/Online-Activites-Total.aspx

Killing time

Many roads to collaborative nirvana

In our last blog we talked about attitudes towards collaboration. But what does collaboration actually mean? Let’s start with a simple definition of collaboration: jointly engaging in tasks that will result in successfully achieving a shared aim. But there are a variety of approaches to collaboration that affect both what collaborators will set out to achieve together as well as what kinds of partners are brought together into the partnership. Here are a few examples of how partnerships can differ from one another

  • Single sector collaborations to focus on specific issues (Climate change: TckTckTck, 350.org. Poverty: GCAP. Hunger: the IF campaign)

  • Single sector collaborations to focus on a range of issues (Alliance 2015, Avaaz.org)

  • Multi sector (private sector, government, campaign and other organisation) to address a specific issue (Transparency: Open Government Partnership)

  • Multi sector (private sector, government, campaign and other organisation) to address a range of issues (World Economic Forum, DEVEX)

  • Private sector and government

  • Grassroots civil society (Anonymous, the Occupy Movement)

  • Gathering data on what people feel are important so as to inform professional campaigners; collaboration between civil society and professional campaigners to achieve legitimacy

 As it turns out, not all forms of collaboration are created equally. Not our words, the words of GlobeScan and SustainAbility, who add that “collaboration is most effective when parties are focused on addressing a single issue, rather than a broad set of topics” (p10).

But what about multi-sector vs. single sector collaborations? Their data seems inconclusive. On the one hand, they don’t measure private, public and third sector collaborations on a single issue. On the other hand, they measure perceptions towards the effectiveness of private, public and third sector collaboration on a broad set of issues: but there, not surprisingly (considering other data on collaborations focused on a broad set of issues) data indicates perceptions of relatively low success. The good news is that their research showed that people feel that multi-company, multi-industry collaborations on a single issue are likely to succeed.

So where does that leave us? Well, we think this data tells us two important things. Firstly, there is not enough collaboration going on between private, public and third sector organisations; the data simply is not there. Secondly, focusing on one issue is a good thing when collaborating.

What’s stopping us from making this happen?

Many roads to collaborative nirvana

Attitudes towards collaboration

Attitudes towards collaborationAccording to the GlobeScan and SustainAbility report, collaboration is an imperative when creating new innovations. This is as opposed to when reproducing something that has already been made before, where outsourcing or solo production is seen as more efficient. Why? Because creating something new involves a lot of new ideas that are unlikely to be found within the same organisation. This is profoundly important in the context of mobilizing global collective action where the core theme is creating new solutions that address everyone’s concerns. Without a collaborative approach, it is highly likely that many stakeholde’s interests will not be taken into consideration, the solution will not reflect the collective wisdom of humanity, and participation required in implementing the solutions will not be achieved.

So, how do you make sure a collaboration is successful? GlobeScan point toward evidence indicating that organisations adopting a collaborative approach must also introduce significant organisational changes. They must 1) consider the strategic role of collaboration at high level management 2) reorganise their inter-organisational infrastructures so that the right people are collaborating together and 3) restructure internal infrastructures so as to ensure internal processes of workflow are geared towards collaborating with their external partners.

These are no small feats. Collaboration takes real commitment from everyone, from the decision makers at the top to executives right in the heart of action. But it is worth it. Speaking of addressing sustainable development challenge, the GlobeScan report argues, “collaboration continues to be viewed as one of the few models that could catalyse solutions to challenges that we face at the speed and scale that we need”. And the same can be said of all global challenges of our time.

Within the voluntary and community sector (VCS) there is also naturally a growing discussion about the benefits of collaboration, published in reports and on websites, and demonstrated in practice.

NCVO, UK umbrella body for volunteering and civil society, argues that “Change cannot happen without the active involvement, support and coorperation of others. Collaboration therefore often lies at the heart of successful campaigning and influencing and can be central to achieving lasting change”. Describing the benefits of collaborative campaigning, NCVO notes advantages of

  • Bringing together a range of expertise, knowledge and experiences

  • Lead to the sharing of resources and workloads

  • Access to a broader base of supporters and therefore achieve bigger targets

  • Enable you to apply pressure on decision makers at various levels

  • Movements are more appealing than the efforts of single organisations as they are seen to have greater legitimacy in the eyes of decision makers

  • Make a greater impact

The UK’s Big Lottery Fund, examining the emergence of collaborative working in mainstream public policy of the community sector, links it back to the publication of the UK Government Treasury’s 2002 Cross Cutting Review (HM Treasury 2002). Since then, it argues, there has been “the idea of collaborative working between VCOs as a means of achieving greater efficiency, effectiveness and impact”.

Despite the fact that we are living in a globalising world, some of you might be surprised to know that the IVAR report notes there is little exchange of ideas between the international NGOs and those working at the local level (p2). 

Naturally there is a huge cost involved in transnational collaboration. But that’s of course why we are here, ready to create the technology to facilitate affordable, intuitive and smart local>global, global>local collaborative, collective action.  

Attitudes towards collaboration

Anonymous

AnonymousHere at Humanity Online we’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing some background research into cultures of collaboration and collective action, investigating examples from the corporate world, the worlds of organised civil society and grassroots civil society. 

Probably the most striking example of collaboration is that of the Anonymous movement. You know, the ones who not so long ago shut down PayPal and major credit card companies after they stopped providing payment services to WikiLeaks. The ones who helped Egyptians connect to the net through their regular landlines when Mubarak’s government shut down the internet. Yes, and the ones wearing the Anonymous ‘mask’ at Occupy events around the world. Whilst many of them are just teenagers, they’ve taken on even the most formidable foes – with relish. They are a striking form of organic civil society.  

What’s so striking about Anonymous is that it seems to have happened almost by accident. Even when they have ‘happened’, it is hard to pin-point exactly what it is that has happened, what and who they are and what they will do next. 

 According to various people who were involved in the movement, who agreed to be filmed for documentary titled ‘Anonymous’, the movement rose out of the online community 4Chan – which essentially provides forum functionalities for users who always remain anonymous. But it was an evolution.

First they developed a sense of community: shared symbolisms sprung up – inside jokes, innuendos and phrases. Note, it is within the context of anonymity that the shared symbolisms sprung up; as though the symbolisms on their own established links of familiarity rather than names, social class or status.

Once a sense of community had developed, users on 4Chan began collaborating. For example, joining virtual communities and all dressing the same way and converging in the same location. They did it for fun and, actually, they got a kick out of joining forces to frustrate other unsuspecting web-users. Were they do-gooders? Hardly! So, what changed? 

They had already realised the power they had as a group, the strength in collaboration. But their moral turn seems to have begun once they started caring for each other as members of a community. When one of their members were threatened by an external force, they joined forces to support that member. 

This shared moral sense of purpose nurtured by seeing its power in action grew, and the rest is history. 

Are Anonymous taking the right route to civil action in all situations? Some would argue no. Is their stated ethos ‘we do not forgive’ the most constructive approach? Some would argue no. But the powerful paradigm that Anonymous provides for collective action using the web is unforgivingly glaring. They show the raw power of the collective, and that because we are living in the internet age, whatever we put our minds to as a collective is possible to achieve.

It is up to our generation to do what we can to create and shape the kinds of environments online that connect people from around the world so that together we can address the really big global issues affecting us in a positive way, channeling that power to the collective good. 

Anonymous